Friday, March 25, 2011

Disaster at Carbide: Mourn the dead, fight like hell for the living

Note: The following was posted at Insider Louisville on Wednesday and has generated significant interest. I'm reposting it here today for my readers in case you missed it. Have a safe weekend - Brian

Trade unionists have many phrases to live by, not the least of which is this one: “Mourn the dead, fight like hell for the living.”

After finally breaching what seemed to be an “Iron Curtain” of silence among current and former employees of Carbide Industries on Bells Lane, Insider Louisville has been able to speak with two people who have direct knowledge about Monday’s incident in which two men were killed in an explosion.

A former Carbide Industries employee, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told Insider Louisville on Wednesday, “It is my understanding they had plans to overhaul that furnace within two to three years. They should not have waited.”

The former employee then added with emphasis: “The place was a ticking time bomb. They constantly had smaller explosions there, you just didn’t hear about them on the news. Maybe if profits were put aside for a minute, those poor souls would still be alive today.”

Carbide Industries is North America’s largest producer of calcium carbide products, according to the company’s website

Calcium carbide is the primary source of acetylene gas used in metal fabrication.

The building Carbide operates out of is an old one, having been among the very first to begin operating in the Rubbertown area, an area that was to become the largest producer of synthetic rubber in the world.

Old facilities like the Carbide plant are inherently more hazardous than modern ones.

Carbide Industries’ Louisville location takes raw materials and turns them into calcium carbide by means of super-heating all the ingredients inside of a furnace in which temperatures can reach 3800 degrees Fahrenheit.

One insider told me that Carbide always was and continued to be a “filthy, nasty place to work” up until Monday’s explosion.

Time will tell if the sources are correct in their assessment of the situation. Until then, we should call on all traditional media outlets to stop repeating what they are told in press releases and use their resources to get to the bottom of the story.

Details about the explosion at Carbide Industries have been sketchy and hard to come by. Early media reports completely botched the story, saying there was an explosion at the DuPont facility, a place that makes Puron refrigerant.

The plant manager at Carbide, John Gant, has been completely unhelpful in piecing together the story and – for the second time in three weeks – Louisville’s emergency management director Doug Hamilton failed spectacularly.

Emergency management officials first told people in the surrounding area to seal themselves inside their homes, then said there was no danger. Firefighters arrived and called the scene a Level 2 Haz-Mat. Then everyone denied calling it a Level 2 Haz-Mat, saying it was just an explosion and grass fire.

No alarms, no phone calls to residents and no updates on the phone hotline that deals with such events have turned the situation into a nightmare.

Mayor Greg Fischer held a press conference on Tuesday to address the crisis. In it, plant manager Gant said he takes responsibility for not updating the telephone hotline within the required time frame to help disseminate information to the surrounding community.

Gant also failed to correctly identify all four employees injured in the explosion, leading to questions about what his role actually is within the company.

Having worked in manufacturing all of my adult life, I can tell you a thing or twenty about safe work habits. I can also tell you some risky things I have seen – occasionally with tacit approval of management – that could have cost a worker his or her life.

Federal and state safety standards as well as alert and knowledgeable employees have protected many workers from losing life or limb on the job.

There are still times, however, when a worker will turn his head to an unsafe act or allow a manager to insist an unsafe act be performed in order to meet production quotas or to save a company a few dollars.

One reason the community at large should resist this type of behavior in all workplaces before something happens – and demand proper protocol be followed after – is evidenced by what occurred Monday afternoon.

Two workers in Louisville died.

I tell you these things with no reservation whatsoever.

Most of you reading this have never spent much time in a large manufacturing plant or other such places and have no frame of reference for this discussion.

But you should be aware that it happens, and with astonishing regularity.

It is a fact of life inside a factory.

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